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January 31, 2024 8 min read

tattoo ward art mtg

I first discovered Magic: The Gathering in the summer of 1994 when I bought my first Revised packs. Among the first cards I acquired was Hypnotic Specter, one of my all-time favorite cards to this day.

hypnotic specter art

I loved everything about the card. It was powerful, and the illustration of an armor-clad spirit perfectly captured the essence of it. The Specter was a key component in the first real competitive deck I built to battle with friends, and at my local game store in their weekly house rules constructed events (think Legacy, but with a much larger banned list).

I played Magic off and on all through middle and high school but slowed down in college, with both work and class eating up all my time. In 2002, I dropped out of college in my sophomore year and moved out of state. What’s a recent college dropout to do?

Why, go get a tattoo, of course!

Choosing My First Magic Tattoo

My appreciation for tattoos started in high school, and I got my first not long after turning 18. It’s a small piece on the back of my neck reflecting my dedication to an alcohol and substance-free lifestyle. For my second tattoo, I knew I wanted a much larger piece, and on a more prominent location on my body. Eventually, I wanted entire sleeves of tattoos down both arms but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, or how to start. It didn’t take long for me to settle on the idea of getting a Magic: The Gathering-inspired piece. The art is iconic and lends itself well to reinterpretation in tattoo form.

Rather than plan out an entire arm’s worth of ideas, which might have made better sense for wanting a sleeve of Magic-inspired tattoos, I chose to get a single piece on my forearm featuring my favorite card at the time, the previously mentioned Hypnotic Specter.

hypnotic specter tattoo

The original tattoo was a bit more cartoony than I wanted (I later had it touched up by a different artist). Twenty years on, it’s held up okay, even with having a line through its right shoulder now thanks to a scar I received from a bicycle crash after being doored by someone. Of all my pieces, it’s the one most in need of a touch up now.

Turning a Single Tattoo into a Sleeve

While I loved my Specter tattoo, I knew I wanted to turn it into part of a full sleeve. Rather than take a couple of my favorite pieces and run out to the first artist I could find, I slowly put cards whose art I wanted to potentially include in the piece into an old starter deck box and looked around for an artist.

Looking For a Tattoo Artist

Finding the right tattoo artist to work with is a lot like finding a local game store (LGS) you want to frequent, or a Magic website you want to read articles and buy accessories from (like this one!). For the tattoo artist, I can’t understate how important it is to find an artist who shares your vision for the final piece. If they’re not as excited about your future tattoo as you are, they’re not the artist for you. It’s also important to find an artist who works in the style you’re looking to have done. There are dozens of tattoo styles, and most artists specialize in one or more styles in which they prefer working. Before approaching an artist, look at their online portfolio and see if the work they’ve done is in a similar vein as what you envision for your final piece.

Online portfolios were not as common 20-ish years ago, so I did a lot of driving around, looking at portfolios, meeting artists, and getting a feel for the shops where they worked. Word-of-mouth pointed me in the direction of many of these artists and shops—it’s still worth following today, but no replacement for your own research.

I finally found an artist I was interested in working with through word of mouth, and their portfolio was very much in the vein of the kind of work I wanted done. I had a strong feeling they were the artist I wanted to work with because of this and seeing their studio space. Each artist at the shop had their own room to work. Nearly an entire wall of this artist’s studio space was lined with vintage Star Wars and other toys, and there were science fiction art and punk/metal posters covering all the rest of the available art space.

When I showed the cards to the artist, and explained what I wanted, their face lit up. Not only did they know Magic, but they were an old school D&D player and were stoked on the idea to do something Magic-related.

The Process

While some tattoo artists take walk-ins, most schedule their work in advance. For a piece like this, which would be done over multiple hours-long sittings, I knew going in that I’d be scheduling it in advance. I paid a deposit and left the cards I’d picked out with the artist so they could work on sketches and outlines for transferring to my skin. Not all tattoo artists work this way, depending on their style and technique, so talk to the artist you’re interested in working with beforehand to fully understand the process before you commit to a deposit.

Choosing Artwork and Where to Place It

When I went in and met with my artist, I brought around 20 potential cards I was interested in having done. The size of my arm, and the size and shape of the pieces I wanted done limited the number that would fit. We narrowed the selection down to around a dozen, and it was that dozen my artist drew up. I knew for sure I wanted Demonic Tutor, Dark Ritual, Necropotence, Mind Twist, Lord of the Pit, and Nightmare. Based on feedback from my artist, I decided I wanted Demonic Tutor to be one of the main focal points of the piece, taking a prominent place on my shoulder.

Placement of pieces is important. How something looks will vary widely depending on where on the body it is placed, and the shape of the body part of the person it is placed on. A larger person with bigger arms might have had more room for pieces, and for wider pieces than what I was able to fit on my own arm. Figuring out placement, and if the piece you have in mind is truly meant for the body part you want it on, is a crucial part of the process and needs to be discussed with your artist. My shoulder ended up being the perfect location for Demonic Tutor.

 

Note the change made to the book in the Tutor’s hands, making it into the back of a Magic card. I don’t remember whether this was my idea or the artist’s, but it was a nice touch.

Tying It All Together: Building a Sleeve

Like building a Magic deck, part of creating a tattoo sleeve is figuring out what to include. The idea I started with was all of my favorite cards in the first real deck I built, plus some friends who went well with the aesthetic. Partly based on figuring out where to place the images, and partly trying to come up with a grander vision for the piece than just a collection of Magic art I really enjoyed, my artist and I hit on the idea of putting Dark Ritual and Mind Twist on the front and back of my wrist.

dark ritual art mtg

Depending on which way you looked at my arm, it was made to appear as if the demonic beings above were either products of the ritual on one side, or the twisted mind on the other.

We removed the funny hat from the Julie Baroh piece because my artist didn’t think it would look good on my arm, opting instead to give him some disheveled hair.

One of the most prominent pieces, and the piece with the most color, is Melissa Benson’s Nightmare.

original nightmare art mtg

In retrospect, adding the color to a mostly grayscale piece was a bit of overkill. If I ever get around to getting my arm touched up, I might have the color covered. After 20 years of being exposed to the sun, it’s mostly washed out at this point anyways, and could potentially be done in grayscale.

Filling in the Space

With the front side of my arm filled with my favorite pieces, filling the backside of my arm fell to what would best fit. Lord of the Pit ended up on the back of my forearm for space reasons and looked great emerging from the magical mist stirred up by the Dark Ritual.

Lord of the pit mtg art

Necropotence ended up on the back side of my upper arm, acting as almost a subordinate to the Demonic Tutor on the front.

necropotence art mtg

With some small space at the back of my elbow, we decided to place the Heather Hudson version of Initiates of the Ebon Hand, and the creepy massive eye in the middle of his chest.

initiates of the ebon hand art

While I love the entire sleeve, possibly my favorite part is Mark Poole’s Howl from Beyond right inside the elbow joint directly above Hypnotic Specter.

While taking a break to stretch in the middle of a several hours long session, we realized the howling monster was perfectly placed to open and close its mouth every time I bent my arm. I wish I could say we were clever enough to make this intentional, but the fact it works at all still amuses me decades later.

Last, But Not Least

To better connect all the separate pieces, I came up with the idea of hiding a few of Jesper Myrfors’ Demonic Hordes throughout my arm.

There’s one creeping behind the Mind Twist, several emerging from the magic generated by the Dark Ritual, and even one clutched in the claw of the monster of Howl from Beyond.

As we approached the end of the piece, I still had a spot on the inside of my bicep that we didn’t have a piece that worked. My artist had outlined interpretations of Jesper Myrfors’ Pestilence, and Ron Spencer’s Terror, but neither of us was crazy about how those pieces looked. Looking at other options online, my artist asked why I hadn’t thought to include Black Lotus or any of the Power 9 into my piece. I told them I hadn’t because they were not part of the deck I’d built, they didn’t fit the aesthetic we were trying to achieve, and I’d never owned any of them (I almost owned a Black Lotus in 1997, but that’s a story for another time).

black lotus art mtg

It didn’t take much persuading to convince me to include Christopher Rush’s iconic Lotus in my sleeve, and I’ve never regretted having the only Black Lotus I’ll ever afford.

The End Result

There are plenty of things I could have chosen to get tattooed on me, but few things have had the same impact on my life the last 30 years as Magic: The Gathering. While the frequency with which I get to play ebbs and flows, I wear my love for the game literally on my sleeve, and it will be with me forever.

Do you have any Magic-related tattoos? What piece of Magic art would you love to have done as a tattoo? Post pictures of your Magic-related ink in the comments or on Twitter.

Paul J. Comeau

Paul first started playing Magic in 1994 when he cracked open his first Revised packs. In the early 2000s he had his favorite artworks from the first deck he ever built tattooed on his arm, permanently stamping his love for the game on his skin. An avid Limited player, his favorite Cube card is Shahrazad. He has a print of his favorite Magic character Garth One-Eye and original art pieces for another ‘90s TCG on display in his office and hopes to one day add an original Magic piece to the collection. A freelance content creator by day, he is currently writing a book on the ‘90s TCG boom.


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